The Internet voting or the anti-democratic catastrophe

Yes this is my first 2012 post, I have a lot of catch up to do, not that I have been out of stories to tell but I just didn’t have the time to tell them right. I hope I’ll be able in another post to give an update on what I have been up to. But for now let’s throw this story out there before all the rest of my pile of untold stories, because this one is fresh and goldmine.

Intro

I’ve just finished a skype call with my mom. I have been helping her to vote online for the French legislative elections, for approximately two hours. I was helping her from France while she was in Madagascar, I was her personal hotline. She didn’t explicitly asked for help, but when we finished talking about life stuff she asked me how she could change her javascript version. It’s a red flag by itself when your mom asks you this kind of questions. Then when she elaborated, she explained that she was trying to vote online for the French legislative elections, and she couldn’t because her javascript version was wrong according to the voting website. Apparently the voting website detected her browser settings and made her install something to change the javascript version. Normally she had to install their software and then restart the browser and it should work. But she didn’t know how to install that software. So there she was, her javascript version was wrong, how could she replace it ?!  I don’t know much about Windows debugging and stuff, but javascript ?! THAT I know!

Diagnosis

That scenario was really odd, how can you switch your javascript version with a software? Was the website making her install a browser? No, she said it was a software for javascript, j-a-v-a-s-c-r-i-p-t. Odd. I told her it was not possible to do that and explained to her that javascript was contained in a browser, so if she needed another javascript version, she needed another browser. Really odd to explain that to your mom. I started checking on google to see if such software existed, but as expected : nothing. I couldn’t even find in google chrome the information of the javascript version used. Hmmm. Strange website. And all the requests really came from the website. Not popups or malicious websites trying to make her download stuff. Another very weird thing was that apparently, the javascript version needed was lower than the one installed, so her browser was too advanced for the website, very weird. Something was definitely not right with that website.

She was using the last version of google chrome, that I specifically installed for her so she wouldn’t have any problems at all. But given the circumstances, if she needed an old browser, for the first time ever in my life, I advised her to try with Internet Explorer, that one should definitely work. But it didn’t. Same message, “the java is wrong again” she said, “what is with this javascript?!”, “it says here the javascript is activated, but the java is wrong!”, “the java is wrong !!!!”. Hmmmmmmm. Wait a minute, Javascript or JAVA ?! Because you know, it’s really not the same thing… Finally I asked her to precisely read her screen to me : “You don’t have the right java version, the latest version of java is 7 but you need the version 6, click this link to know more”. Hmmm. Ok, it was Java.

After 1 hour

So I went through with her with all the installation of the JVM from Oracle, reassuring her at every step that it was ok. I realized the basics of UI were completely unknown to her. First she didn’t know where the downloaded file went, she didn’t know what it was really to download, and I couldn’t guide her because I don’t have the same interface as her. Even if I told her to look for a menu, she didn’t see what I meant at all. Then during the installation, the installation wizard vanished, and reappeared again (?!). She complained that she had the impression of clicking yes to everything without really knowing what she was agreeing to. UI is definitely not a given. But anyway, the most important thing in the end was: “Java is successfully installed !” Yay! Trying to guide someone in blind mode is really something crazy to do, I was completely losing my patience, but as I said the most important thing was : “Java is successfully installed !” Finally.

IE the savior

Then  the website told her to restart the browser, but I told her it wouldn’t work, she’d have to restart her computer. She tried anyway, to see what happens. It didn’t work. So while she was restarting her computer I had the time to take a shower, and 15min later, I came back and I found her hysterically happy, “Something has changed ! Now it says that java is ok but now I need google chrome 17 or 18, and mine is 19 so I didn’t follow their link because isn’t that downgrading? What shoud I do?”

Wow. So many efforts to promote progressive enhancement completely wiped out by this crappy website. I didn’t know that it was possible to support old browsers but not new ones, it goes against any current modern development trends. Why?! Normally progressive enhancement is the fact of  making sure the basic features of your website work with the minimum, and then enrich the features as the browser gets more functionalities. So if you have the maximum of functionalities, logically the basic features should work, but not for this crappy website which probably didn’t evolve since…years ago. So : I pulled out the IE card again. And guess what ?! IT WORKED !!!!!!!!! My mom read ”The online voting portal is open !!!!!!!!!!!!” Oh my goodness, I was assisting in live video to my mom voting for the first time of her life online. History. It was like being with her in the voting booth. Then she described her experience to me. There was a list with all the candidates, she clicked on her candidate, then she clicked “Vote”, it asked her again if she wanted to vote for that candidate, warning her that the vote would then be counted, she clicked again, and done. Always good to know. She was completely exulting. A big task had just been completed.

It was a last minute vote because the online voting system will close on Tuesday and she is going on holiday tomorrow with no access to the Internet. But not to worry, the State is not stupid, of course you can still physically vote later in case you haven’t voted online. At the end, my mom printed the receipt of the vote proving she had voted. I asked her if the name of the candidate was on the receipt, but no, it was not. She said “this will be a proof that I did vote”, right, but for who? we’ll never really know, with their crappy website, who knows what can happen with the data. Anyway, my mom finally explained to me that she wanted to try the online voting to see if it was worthy, just to try, well now she knows. And me too.

Now imagine that scenario for millions of citizens. Errr. Sane people would quickly give up, not everyone is used to technology especially if the UI is bad. And when you’re with your computer, there is no one to help you, the devs are not there to welcome you and tell you what to do.

Epilogue : Technology is not democratic 

I tend to be very optimistic about technology and see it as the solution to every problem, but let’s hope it doesn’t get too far in politics because that would be completely anti-democratic. I always wonder who are those people who never update their browsers and why I should care about older browsers, but, yep those people are my mom, she probably won’t update alone her browser until I do it for her. And it’s probably the case of other people.

Technology is not natural ! It seems natural for those who were lucky to grow up with it, but sooner or later, the people that are now at ease with technology, will be the ones completely lost with the technology coming after them. So it’s very difficult to imagine a democratic political system that would completely rely on technology, even if the temptation to transfer everything to technology is greater and greater. Technology is anti-democratic. It can definitely improve things, it’s fundamentally an “improver” but it should never be the only way to do things. There should always be other ways for people who don’t know how to use it. It’s tempting to make the online voting the only and standard way, but honestly when you see how it’s done…errr, no please no.

The efficient technology has not yet reached State administrative applications, but even if it had, it shouldn’t be the only way. Install a JVM to vote, can you believe it ?! Why not ask to run some shell commands first, and then allow to vote in a one command line $ vote -y Indianah Jones. Haaa. I understand it better now, not everyone is at ease with technology. That’s why even though technology seems to me like the first and foremost tool for freedom, it’s not democratic. Indeed not everyone gets the UI, not everyone can interact with it, and not everyone can have it. The big trend right now is to develop hipsterish apps fundamentally useless but cool and efficient. But what about public service, huh ? No one there for the useful and needed stuff. It’s very difficult to include all the possible cases of everyone when implementing technology for public services, it’s a huge technical task. As a result the public service is left with crappy websites from…? oh right, years ago. However, if the voting was as quick as 2 or 3 clicks, I wonder if the experience would still be serious to us. Technology applied to politics… It kind of spooks me a little bit.

Anyway, my javascript skills were not that useful after all. But I was happy that my software knowledge could help someone in an “every day” task, I never thought that could be possible. I mean, when someone gets ill somewhere, you ask “is there a doctor here to help please?”, in what situation would you ask “is there a software engineer here to help please?”, well maybe in case you’re trying to vote online. Now my mom knows a little more about what a JVM is and how the layers of applications work. Someone also told her about Google Earth and now she wants to try it out, but she was afraid of installing it when Windows scared her by calling Google an “unknown source”. Well, after this voting experience, she told me she would definitely install Google Earth herself and see how it goes. Fantastic. By the way, have I mentioned, my mom was a software engineer in the 70′s, you get technology for a while and then you don’t get it anymore, curious technology !

PS : Happy new year !